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An American from way back, when the country was new, would be shocked in Trump time

Advocates and doctors have reported health and hygiene problems among children held at Customs and Border Protection facilities in Texas.
Advocates and doctors have reported health and hygiene problems among children held at Customs and Border Protection facilities in Texas. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection/AP)

This happened 208 years ago, in a long-gone furnace town called Martha in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. A man named Caleb Earle, a clerk in one of the iron foundries of the pines, kept a diary. On July 4, 1811, he wrote these words: “Independence. May the name of Washington be immortal and the federal constitution may it never fail.”

I came across this entry in an old paperback copy of John McPhee’s book about the Pine Barrens. I imagined this Caleb sitting at a high desk, breaking from his usual business entries, to record a Fourth of July wish, just 35 years after the Declaration of Independence.

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The entry is a kind of prayer that a still-new nation succeed. It suggests an understanding of the United States as an experiment. The entry savors freedom and hails one of its fathers, then it toasts long life to the rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

A page from John McPhee's "The Pine Barrens" quotes extensively from Caleb Earle's 19th Century diary.
A page from John McPhee's "The Pine Barrens" quotes extensively from Caleb Earle's 19th Century diary. (Baltimore Sun)

With another war against the British brewing, Caleb might have felt a restive urge to express hope for the country’s survival.

But he might also have understood that Americans had the potential to be their own worst enemy. Away from his daily toils, he might have pondered and taken to heart Benjamin Franklin’s warnings about the republic’s fragility. Maybe Caleb feared that his country would break apart over a divisive issue. Perhaps he understood slavery to be that issue. He might have believed that, even with abolition, racial prejudice and hatred would be hard to overcome.

Or perhaps he worried about apathy, about Americans not taking advantage of their right to vote. Perhaps he feared that, in the absence of robust citizenship, a new kind of aristocracy would develop, where wealthy landowners, merchants and politicians became a kind of ruling class. And maybe they would anoint a king among them.

I won’t assign this 19th Century clerk any further prescience — I might have given him too much already — but Caleb Earle must have been smart enough to sense danger in sustained, deep division. He must have known that, to succeed, the people of the United States needed to have common purpose and high-minded ideals. He knew we would disagree, but that disagreement — even full-blown dissent — would be welcome in a democracy.

And his reference to George Washington suggests that Caleb understood the critical role of honorable, wise, strong and fair leadership. His diary entry expresses hope that the nation would always choose good leaders, reject rogues and never succumb to tyrants.

Now, maybe that’s too much to draw from the 16 words of a 208-year-old diary entry. But we have arrived at the third Fourth of July of the Donald Trump presidency. It’s a strange, confusing and frequently depressing time in the nation’s history. So old words from the quill, phrases that would normally seem quaint, strike me as profound and righteous — more so because, in this case, they come from a foundry clerk and not a statesman in powdered wig.

Caleb Earle understood what was at stake in the American experiment in liberal democracy, and if he were here today he would be shocked to see that, more than two centuries later, there are still doubts about its survival.

He’d be shocked by many things.

Shocked to learn that an American president has little understanding of the founding principles and the separation of powers, and that he might not respect the results of the next election, should he lose it. Shocked that any American could be so partisan as to tolerate interference by a foreign power in a presidential election. Shocked that an American president would make jokes about it in the presence of the leader of that foreign power.

Shocked that a president would make nice with dictators.

Shocked at the bitter political partisanship that sometimes approaches tribalism.

Shocked that so many mass shootings occur and that, long past the need for well-armed militias, the government continually fails to regulate firearms to make the public safer.

Shocked that the leader of the Senate would keep a sitting president from filling a vacancy on the nation’s highest court.

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Shocked that any American would want to discourage others from voting.

Shocked to see the billions spent on elections by candidates. Shocked that the Supreme Court would see corporations as citizens, with the right to pour millions into political campaigns. Shocked at the wide chasm between the wealthy and the poor, the gap made even wider with tax cuts to benefit those who need it least.

Shocked that we lead the world in incarceration rates.

Shocked that so many Americans use and abuse drugs.

Understanding that the new country was built by immigrants and slaves — people who came from elsewhere, freely or in bondage — Caleb Earle would be shocked at the demonization of immigrants in the 21st Century. He would be shocked by a president’s attempts to exploit fears and prejudices, and he would be shocked to learn that many Americans are susceptible, wittingly or unwittingly, to the fear-monger’s pleadings.

Caleb would be shocked at the cruel way we treat migrants who seek asylum, especially children, separating many of them from their families. That, perhaps more than anything, might render the clerk from long-ago despondent about the state of his country. It might make him angry. It might make him feel lost.

And I would say welcome to the club, we’re all in this together.

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